BEMIDJI, Minn. — Sen. Amy Klobuchar learned about challenges facing educators during a roundtable Thursday, May 6, with superintendents from northwest and central Minnesota schools.
The phone conference call included Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz, who shared with Klobuchar how Bemidji schools kept operating during the past several months.
"We have had a very challenging school year, but I am proud to say that we've been able to safely keep all of our elementary schools open in our in-person model without community spread," Lutz said. "We've been able to keep our secondary students in rotation with our hybrid model and we've been able to bring them back to in-person learning since March."
Along with having to implement different styles of teaching, Lutz commented on the general well-being of the students.
"Like other districts, we've seen a large cost to student learning and a devastating cost to mental health, and social and emotional issues because of the pandemic," Lutz said.
Another topic discussed Thursday was stimulus funding from the federal government and ongoing financial issues faced by districts. In the most recent bill, the America Rescue Plan Act, Minnesota received $1.3 billion in federal investments for K-12 education.
"We really pushed hard to make sure there was additional funding for K-12 in the America Rescue Plan," Klobuchar said. "I'm especially aware of our Greater Minnesota districts and the struggles they're facing, from making sure they have enough employees to the issues with funding, period."
Despite all of the support, Lutz explained how the Bemidji district had to cut an unprecedented number of teachers, staff and programs this spring. Lutz said the decisions were based on a "perfect storm" of financial issues.
These included increased costs and the loss of 280 students who left the district, which resulted in losses of $2.8 million in revenue and $1.4 million in compensatory revenue. He said the district is extremely grateful for the stimulus dollars from the state and federal governments, but called them "one-time fixes."
"They won't address the long-term, structural problems that schools face because of years of reductions in financial support," Lutz said.
On the subject of funding, Klobuchar said she's returning to Washington, D.C., next week for the start of discussions on an infrastructure package. According to the White House's website, President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan calls for $100 billion toward public schools.
Klobuchar said she's leading the broadband portion of the bill and noted its importance in how it relates to education. She also mentioned that she's talked with President Biden directly about the need for broadband funding.
"He's put it as a major part of the bill," Klobuchar said. "Republicans in their counteroffer also have significant funding for broadband in theirs."
Long Prairie Grey Eagle Public Schools Superintendent Jon Kringen also noted how important improved broadband is for his area.
"We have a significant number of our students who did not have access to the internet, as well staff," Kringen said. "So one of the biggest dividers in our community was that we couldn't do live teaching throughout the school year. That was a real issue for us."
Leadership from Red Lake County, Red Lake Falls and Clearbrook-Gonvick school districts also participated in the call.